Each year, we choose a new Grand Challenge to address in the field of mathematics, physics, or the biological sciences. We then invite applications in order to devise a team of fellows who are highly motivated and well-equipped to pursue the research question. All work undergoes an open peer-review process and is made available to the public.


2018: The physical basis of consciousness

A mechanistic explanation of consciousness has long proved elusive to philosophers and scientists. It is simply not understood what perceptual experience - the stream of thought - is, or how non-material mental states are produced by the operations of neural networks. The goal of this year's grand challenge is to devise a theory which provides a mechanistic framework for cognitive processes and a plausible physical explanation for thought. 


The 2018 effort successfully generated a theory which satisfies these requirements by combining the laws of neuroscience, information theory, and physics. This work is undergoing peer review. 

2019: The emergent structure of the universe

A long-standing challenge in physics is reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity. At quantum scales, a fundamental uncertainty in the position and momentum of a particle renders difficulty in measuring the curvature of space-time at its exact location. Meanwhile, at cosmological scales, the curvature of space-time appears irregular and dynamic. The goal of this year's grand challenge is to devise a theory which describes the curvature of the universe using force laws rather than empirically-derived constants which are not valid at every scale, and further to determine what this theoretical framework says about the earliest stages of the universe. This work is currently being drafted into a report. 

2020: Living in an information-filled world

In the nineteenth century, Ludwig Boltzmann and Willard Gibbs determined the mathematical law for entropy, a quantifiable amount of disorder in thermodynamic systems. Later, Claude Shannon derived an astonishingly similar equation to measure information, the amount of disorder or non-compressibility in a dataset. Several years afterwards, John von Neumann extrapolated this equation into higher dimensions for use in quantum mechanics. Yet a functional link between these laws has remained out of reach, despite the common element of probabilistic mechanics which provides the foundation for thermodynamics, computing, and quantum theory. The grand challenge for 2020 is to address the following questions: How are information and entropy related? Do they play any significant role in the structure and operation of our universe? What are the implications of living in a probabilistic world, which generates information and entropy? This work is currently ongoing. 

2021: Recognizing non-human consciousness

As the development of AI hardware and algorithms accelerate, it is useful to explore the requirements for consciousness to manifest in a biological or non-biological system. What kind of physical structure and functional operations are necessary and sufficient to achieve consciousness? What kind of behavioral indicators would demonstrate that an entity has conscious experience? Is the Turing Test sufficient for evaluating consciousness in non-biological entities, or do we need a newer, updated framework? Addressing these questions will be 2021's Grand Challenge.

The Western Institute for Advanced Study was founded in 2018. It is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Denver, Colorado. 


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